So many posts out there claim to have the ultimate guide for running a business. I know because I have exhaustively read them over the years, informing much of my perspective on how to navigate the dynamic and challenging world of freelance photography.
That said, I am writing this not to give the world yet another how-to guide, but a broader perspective on the best things I have done for my photo business in the past year.
I've brought a lot of my previous management experience, marketing classes, and social media background to what I do today. Working for a nonprofit taught me much about frugality and still getting the job done. Managing a P&L taught me to build sustainability and profit margins into my day-to-day. Working with start-ups taught me to be nimble and to embrace the 80/20 principle - understanding that everything can't and won't be perfect if you expect to move forward and adapt quickly. (Almost nobody notices the 20% you agonize about anyway.)
I'm not going to give you the guide to running a creative business. You can listen to Gary Vaynerchuk's podcast to get hyped up. You can read The Lean Startup to learn more about the 80/20 principle, creating value, and a minimum viable product. There are YouTube videos for everything from lighting to skin retouching, and guides specifically dedicated to running a photo businesses. This is my experience, over the last year. I...
It's funny because I am an over-sharer and abundantly confident in myself... except when I am not. For the longest time, I was afraid to sell myself.
Yeah. Like, my acquisition of new clients that pays for my rent and obscene consumption of iced coffee I need to live. I wouldn't actually sell. It is one thing to post your best work and advertise, but in a field of a million photographers (in my neighborhood, honestly) what will make them want me?
This part actually came from a space of frustration rather than motivation. I occasionally hear the disparaging comments about what a photographer does or does not do, and how many people simply have no idea the extent that many of us go to in making their photos look good. I posted a screenshot of before and after of a subject's hair. I got tons of comments and thought, "Yeah, I did it!" thinking I may have convinced at least one person to value retouching more than they previously had.
A friend of mine pointed out that I was looking at it all wrong. "You should post more of those. People love that." We had a conversation about photographers who churn out 40 photos a session because they're largely using Lightroom presets and batch editing (no shade, some people who fall into this category I still admire, and there's obviously a market for it). But our conversation pointed out one of my differentiators - I go in when I edit.
Wouldn't you know, that as soon as I started hitting this idea harder, I had people booking me specifically based on my attention to detail in these videos. These workflow videos have increased my bookings and, in the very least, street cred, yielding more views on Facebook posts than when I boost others. I've had photographers ask me to teach them my ways. It has come to a point where this self promotion generates business leads for me and a reputation as a detailed/thorough retoucher. It's motivating and validating as well.
2. Let Go of Perfection
This probably sounds strange based on what you just read about my neurotic editing style, but hear me out.
I bet I can go do something else, come back with fresh eyes, and proof this post and still find an error the day after I post it. I recently updated my website and found a button that didn't actually go to my booking form properly some of the time (#internalscreaming). Who knows how long it was like that?! These two things are pretty polar opposites in significance but demonstrate how our response to imperfection can either cripple us or warrant a quick resolution and move to the next thing.
Although it played well to my success in the past, I've learned to manage my expectations of completing a to-do list and agonizing over lesser details. Ultimately, I'm no longer in fear of sleeping with emails unanswered and checklists unchecked. I'm better off for it.
3. Optimized My Workflow
This is the most "operations" I think I will get in this post, and the section fueled most by prior experience.
SO MANY talented photographers fail to break into full-time freelancing or they lose business for not viewing their business as... a business.
Every little thing you do as a small business owner that wastes time cuts into your bottom line. Time is literally money, and wasting it is... wasting money. I'm confident I actually take on less clientele and work fewer hours per session and come out in the same place as many of my peers for this very reason.
Here's a small number of things I have done to optimize my workflow lately, sparing exhaustive details:
- Made copy and paste paragraphs to fill emails with redundant (to me) information
- Scheduled gigs relative to each other based on location
- Alternated gigs and editing time - I frequently turn basic sessions around in 24-48 hours because I don't schedule a weekend full of sessions and then sit at my computer for three weeks churning out photos
- Created actions for a lot of the steps I repeatedly (read: redundantly) took in Photoshop
- Compared frequently asked session inquiries to my booking form and made them required fields to cut down on back and forth
Imagine taking five minutes to write out a response to every inquiry versus copying and pasting paragraphs on how your booking deposit works and what is included in each package. Yeah, of course I personalize emails and respond to specific needs. No, I don't need to type out my payment methods and how a deposit works every time a random person fills out my booking form or emails me.
If you write out every single email, have a horrible editing process, schedule your time poorly, or any number of things, that dollar amount you're earning on a session drops considerably. If it takes me twice as long to respond to emails, my bookings are clear across town from each other, and I'm 20 clicks away from the same specific method on EVERY photo, that time adds up. That's when your $200 turns into $18 an hour versus $50 an hour.
I tend to avoid focusing on gear as a significant factor in photography, but this is one I frequently encourage others to purchase. If you want to cut down on masking on effects, brush strokes, and spot healing, you need a Wacom Tablet. You can get these for relatively cheap (just compare features and reviews) and it will cut editing time by hours. Unashamedly and transparently, the link here is for the model I have and is an affiliate link.
4. Said No, A Lot
One of the hardest things we do as photographers is sell ourselves short by saying yes to short-term wins. Those gigs that don't pay quite what you hoped to make, gigs far away when you'd rather not haul your gear for no extra pay. I recently denied a quick ~$500 for unedited step and repeat photos. At worst, this gig would have made me about $200 an hour and I wouldn't have to process the images after. Why didn't I take it?
It was a high-school reunion - 25 miles away. I can't think of anything more soul crushing than a plain white backdrop and a ton of interactions with people at an event that I tend to perceive as abundantly fake and forced. There is no art, no creativity, no excitement. They wanted flat lighting, a plain backdrop, and basic poses. The process I was proposed required filling out form numbers next to names, taking exactly two photos of each person, and sending unprocessed JPEGs at the end of the night.
The short-term "I like to eat food" me probably should have said yes.
The long-term me playing to establish myself as a creative photographer with a point of view? The photographer who photographs nudity and queerness and personality? Not a chance in hell.
From a business sense, this all comes down to priorities. Short-term wins never pan out for companies big or small, as far as I'm concerned. It deteriorates your brand and distracts from the bigger purpose. What would I gain by advertising myself as a photographer to a bunch of people who do not fit my target demographic, and who are of the age at which they all probably want senior portraits and family photos?
Instead, I politely thanked them for reaching out and moved on. A month later, I have never been busier.
5. Was True to Myself
I tell this story a lot because I think it's absurd and it says a lot about a business contingent on the owner's personality. I once lost a couple grand from a certain massive carbonated soft-drink company. A department manager of theirs wanted headshots done for her team. Her boss? Told her to find another photographer because of the Men section on my site. Mind you, there is no actual full nudity there, and the last few times I did headshots for corporate clients, I had no issue with them keeping their clothes on.
I was asked a number of times if I ever intended on separating my business focuses, but I have no intention. Off the top of my head, a headshot client and an engagement session came from clients who learned about me through my nude work. I've been hired by plenty of clients who specifically wanted a gay photographer. It's not the easy way, and it will disappoint you occasionally. The feeling of unapologetically presenting your view of the world, and finding the right clientele, makes up for it and then some.
6. Printed My Work
As a general issue with the times we live in, I know so many photographers who deliver digital files and never see their work on paper. Even if clients order prints, they almost never print their own work for the sake of seeing it off-screen.
This past year, I printed photos just to have them. Actually, most are not even framed or visible, but the exercise served as a tactile and real experience I missed since working exclusively in a dark room. Holding your work in your hands feels totally different.
This year is also the first time I sold my work, successfully selling prints of several images to people all around the country, many I've never met. Slipping prints into a mailer and dropping them off at the post office felt refreshing compared to sending a cloud storage link.
Another plug: get $5 off my favorite printing site, Mpix, by using my link. I've used them for years and they always exceed expectations in print quality and they always deliver faster than quoted.
6.5 Reflected, Then Looked Forward
Regularly. I just did. ;)